A Thousand Words

As an illustrative photographer in the 80s and 90s, I learned the power of an image to tell a story. As the saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words," or in my case, $750.00 a day plus expenses. The ability of a photograph to capture a moment in time and hold it for future generations to see and interpret is powerful. While most images have little
significance to history, some are etched in our collective memory. The first steps on the moon, the raising of the flag over a Pacific Island, and the crumbling of a wall in Germany. These are just a few inspirational images that will forever be the measure of their moment, their fraction of a second. Their story will be told until they no longer exist or no one is here to view them.

Of less historical significance, but nevertheless just as powerful and inspiring, are the thousands of images we as anglers have collected, documenting our sport, the beautiful places it takes us, the people we shared the experience with, and our occasional piscatorial successes. Like the image above, they tell a story of a place in time, or do they?

With declining fish populations and an increasing interest in fly fishing, we must all advocate for and protect our wild resources. Since much of our fly angling is catch and release, it is crucial to understand how our interaction affects survival rates and the fishery's health while working to minimize that impact.

While catch and release is not a new concept, it has become a tool for fisheries management all around the globe. Barbless hooks, fly fishing-only, and other tackle restrictions allow an angling opportunity, providing tourism, employment, and recreation in waters that would be decimated if not for these restrictions. Unfortunately, even with these regulations, a percentage of fish released do not survive. As anglers, it is up to us to make sure our enjoyment of the sport does not lead to its decline.

How do we do that? Well, that depends on our understanding of what causes a negative impact. For example, we all know that warm water and over-stressing can be detrimental to fish survival. But on the other hand, playing fish quickly, landing them promptly, and minimizing handling during the release increases survival rates. In addition, barbless hooks and rubber nets facilitate easy release and reduce tissue damage. Yet, one simple way to increase the survival of all fish species has been slow to be unanimously adopted by anglers, keeping fish wet; and by wet, I mean in the water during handling and release.

Grip and grin photos have been around as long as the camera, and we all have hundreds, if not thousands, of images featuring fish out of the water, held for eternity just inches from freedom. The truth may be different, but those images tell the story of a fish held out of its life-giving environment, reducing its chances of survival. And while the camera captured just a split second in time, that "fish out of water" image is forever.

Recent studies show that even a few seconds out of water is detrimental to survival for many species. Yet, while most experienced anglers know this and consistently practice keeping fish wet, we are flooded daily in social media by so-called "influencers" with images of fish gripped in gut-crushing single-hand releases far from their native waters. So how do we change this? Simple, lead by example.

A few years ago, I stood up at a gathering of fly shop owners, expressing my concern about how our industry promoted poor fish handling with their social media posts. I called for a coordinated effort to set a better example, making it cool to show fish in the water. I got a lovely ovation from my peers but left, not knowing if I made a difference. Since then, many have embraced this concept, but we have a long way to go.

While scribbling this weekly newsletter, I have endeavored never to show fish out of water. Unfortunately, sometimes I have to turn down fantastic images from guests and contributors to maintain that policy. It's all about the story those images tell; I want it to be one of respect and stewardship.

Returning to the image above from a gloomy gray day on Andros Island, what do you see? This photograph pops up on our kitchen, "Alexa," as a daily memory, and every day I relive the moment. While the casual viewer would see a bonefish being respectfully released, just briefly lifted in a wet hand to remove the barbless hook, and presume it survived without injury, the truth is much darker than the sky.

As the fish slipped from my hand, the guide perched on the bow yelled, "shark!" I looked up to see a six-foot Lemon shark targeting the bonefish just inches from my hand. Of course, my first thought was to save the bonefish, so a swift kick to the shark's nose was purely on instinct. Unfortunately, it only delayed the inevitable as the big fish turned and cut the bonefish in half. With the water now filled with mud, blood, scales, and my two legs, my thoughts shifted to self-preservation as I launched into the skiff, unceremoniously landing on the deck. The blood and scales drifting away as the shark slid into the deep.

So, while a picture is worth a thousand words, it may not tell the whole tale. We need to understand the message we send with the images we publish on our social feeds, ensuring it's the story we want to tell and inspiring our audience to do the same.

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